K.C. Walsh

K.C. Walsh

Should we be gambling with something we value so dearly?

A foreign mining company plans on doing just that. Tintina Resources is about to file an application with the state of Montana to construct a large copper mine in a crucial headwater of the magnificent Smith River. All Montanans should be concerned.

The Smith is Montana’s only river regulated with a recreational permit system. Demand for an opportunity to float its 59-mile recreational stretch grows every year. Because of its rugged canyons, beautiful scenery and blue-ribbon trout fishery, it’s a river that captures one’s soul and doesn’t let go.

Copper mining certainly has a purpose and place, but the Smith River watershed is absolutely not appropriate for a mining site. Tintina’s Black Butte Copper mine would be constructed on private land near and directly underneath Sheep Creek – which at times produces half of the Smith’s flows as well as healthy habitat for more than 50 percent of the Smith’s spawning trout, whose pursuit by anglers generates more than $7.5 million a year for the state.

That’s why it is essential that Montanans pressure regulators at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to closely scrutinize every detail of the mine proposal for its effects on water, wildlife, fish and the sustainable recreational economy the river and its corridor support. In fact, Montanans should demand DEQ and Gov. Bullock not approve a permit unless the mining company can prove up front with no-doubt, clear and convincing evidence the mine will not produce short or long-term environmental impacts, and that when the mine closes there will be no lasting pollution. Unless we demand zero risk, we are gambling with one of Montana’s most valued natural treasures.

The history of mining in Montana tells us that unless the public pushes, the Smith will suffer. The mining industry and state regulators told us not long ago that modern mines such as the Kendall Mine near Lewistown, the Beal Mountain Mine near Anaconda, and the Zortman-Landusky mines near Malta would not pollute or interfere with groundwater. But they were wrong. Instead, ranchers lost water sources and taxpayers have been stuck with multi-million dollar cleanups and treatment of pollution sources in perpetuity. Experts fear the proposed Black Butte mine could produce similar outcomes by reducing flows in Sheep Creek, and potentially releasing acidic discharges that feature low pH or troublesome concentrations of arsenic and nitrates into surface and ground waters.

It is highly possible once this mine is retired, as has regularly occurred elsewhere, that the site will pose continuing risk as waste piles leach metals and nitrates, or, surface seeps with acidic discharges develop from underground workings. Montana already has hundreds of such messes. The recent episode in which pollution from an abandoned mine turned Colorado’s Animas River the color of orange Kool-Aid is a reminder that some mine pollution never goes away.

To make matters worse, foreign investors will control this mine. An Australian mining company, Sandfire Resources, owns the controlling financial interest in the project. It has an option to further solidify that position. Referring to this project, Sandfire’s CEO was quoted in the Australian press, saying his company wants “…a clear path to control, otherwise we are not interested. Further, Tintina’s current board of directors includes no Montanans. Essentially unless we can pull levers and push buttons we have very little interest in being involved in something.”

And so, despite the calculated local face Tintina is painting on this project, the fact remains: Decisions on mining operations, safety, design, investment in environmental protection, under what conditions mining ceases, and how it treats Montanans and local communities will come from people who live 9,800 miles away and who have never seen the Smith.

Debate over this mine proposal is not whether mining is important. It is. However, there are appropriate locations for mines, and Montana’s Smith River country is not one of them. When the risks are this considerable, no one should gamble with our future. Mines are ephemeral. The Smith River must endure forever.

K.C. Walsh is a lifelong angler who since 1993 has been the president of Simms Fishing Products, based in Bozeman.